May/June 2024Vol. XXXVI No. 5

New Transportation Connectivity Has Roots at MIT

Frederick P. Salvucci

The $2 billion Allston Multimodal Project has just received a $335 million federal grant for connecting communities, giving the project new momentum and increased credibility. The key innovative conceptual element of the Allston Multimodal Project was contributed by an urban designer named Antonio DiMambro, who received his degree at MIT, and has taught in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). As an MIT student, Antonio proposed a new multimodal rail station called “West Station” in Allston, where rail passengers from the western suburbs and Central and Western Mass can transfer onto a frequent rail shuttle via the Grand Junction rail link to Kendall and North Station, greatly improving the accessibility of Kendall/MIT to and from the west, and establishing a new synergy with a new development node in Allston, and an evolving Worcester economy.

This new node in Allston, achieved by relocating the obsolete CSX rail freight terminal from Allston to Worcester, straightening and flattening the turnpike now freed from the old manual toll collection plaza with its tight curvature, introducing West Station, and building adjacent to and on the air-rights over the transportation infrastructure, will be on the scale of a new Prudential Center, which was itself redeveloped from the former Back Bay rail yard and on air-rights over I-90. Like the Prudential’s repurposing of the Back Bay rail yard, the Allston Multimodal Project proposes to enhance the accessibility of the land through transportation improvements and improved community connectivity, reducing the physical separation created by rail and highway infrastructure. The improved connectivity between Kendall-MIT and Allston-West Station, and Worcester, enhances the economic agglomeration benefits of all three urban sites, and establishes the potential for synergy and collaboration, including cross university research collaboration between MIT, Harvard University, Boston University, and the UMass Medical Center at Worcester, – all key elements in Antonio’s visionary proposal.

Of course, MIT has been the beneficiary of fortuitous transportation investments since its relocation from Back Bay to Cambridge in the early 1900s.

As it became clear that MIT was outgrowing its limited space in Boston’s Back Bay, significant consideration was given to a proposal by MIT Professor and then Harvard President Charles Eliot for MIT to become the Harvard’s science and engineering school, ironically on land in Allston purchased by Andrew Carnegie. This proposal was decisively blocked by near universal rejection by MIT faculty, concerned with the loss of independence and the commitments made by MIT when it became a beneficiary of Abraham Lincoln’s land grant college plan. Instead, in 1912, almost exactly coincident with the opening of Red Line service, and shortly after the construction of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge over the Charles River connecting the Cambridge campus site to Boston, MIT retained its independence and moved to its current location in Cambridge.

MIT’s northern boundary was the Grand Junction rail line which provided vital links between rail freight services from Worcester and Framingham to industrial activities in Kendall Square, destinations at the Charlestown rail yards and seaport, Everett and Chelsea industries, and the East Boston seaport facilities. I have a fond memory of the circus train stopping on the Grand Junction line at Massachusetts Avenue so that the elephants could parade past MIT to the Boston Garden at North Station. Ironically, during the construction of the Big Dig, the most unique property acquisition was acquiring the Analex Building, including the elephant ramp and bridge to allow the elephants to climb up and cross over Accalon Way to enter the upper floor Boston Garden arena.

But as the Boston area economy shifted from manufacturing and heavy goods transport to knowledge industries, rail transportation priorities have shifted from carrying freight to transporting people to job opportunities based upon the value of face-to-face communication in high density urban clusters. So MassDOT’s transportation policy has been investing in a transformation from emphasis on rail freight to traditional commuter rail services, which focus on providing relatively expensive peak hour service, to a regional rail concept, with more frequent all day and all week service with affordable fares, to improve connectivity. This transformation has been going on for over a half century, beginning with public acquisition of private railroads during the administrations of Governors Volpe, Sargent, and Dukakis. Enabling activities continued during the administrations of Governors Patrick and Baker, when key parts of the Worcester branch and the Grand Junction Rail systems were purchased by the MBTA, and a collaborative effort between the city of Worcester, MassDOT, Harvard, and CSX railroad succeeded in relocating the Allston freight yard to Worcester and Massdot agreed to introduce Antonio’s original idea of West Station. The conceptual adoption of the plan to transform commuter rail to regional rail by the MBTA furthered this vision during the Baker administration. Recent progress under Governor Healey has seen the successful receipt of federal funding to upgrade Worcester branch West East rail from Springfield to Worcester to Boston; acquisition of Widett Circle near South Station for expanded passenger rail layover and maintenance capacity; and the successful pursuit of the $335 million federal Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grant for the Allston Multimodal Project from the Biden administration, a joint application with Boston Mayor Wu’s administration, and strong support from the entire congressional delegation.

There remain many steps to completing this transformation, including securing additional funding to upgrade the 90-year-old Grand Junction bridge over the Charles River for reliable 2-track rail service from West Station to Kendall Square to North Station, along with pedestrian and bicycle paths included to link the Cambridge and Boston esplanades and bicycle connections being supported by the Cambridge residents and city administration. The economic development opportunities around West Station are not feasible until the completion of a decade of construction to redevelop the turnpike and rail infrastructure. But the MIT community is situated to be a major beneficiary of Antonio DiMambro’s visionary plans throughout the next century